Three of Yaakov’s sons play a major role in the stories of Yosef and his brothers: Yosef, Reuven, and Yehudah. Each one of these presents a type of a tikkunfor Yaakov. It starts with Yosef.
“These are the generations of Yaakov: Yosef.” This is the Midrash’s reading of Breishit, 37:2, a verse that in its simple sense narrates the events that occurred to Yaakov’s children. By putting the period after the word “Yosef,” however, the Midrash suggests a different reading, namely that Yosef is the continuation of Yaakov:
Just as Yaakov was born circumcised, so was Yosef born circumcised…
Just as this one’s brother hated him, so this one’s brothers hated him, just as this one’s brother wanted to kill him, so this one’s brothers wanted to kill him…
This one was stolen from twice [“I would repay it… stolen by day or stolen by night” (31:39)], and this one was stolen from twice [“For I have certainly been stolen, gunov gunavti, from the land of the Hebrews” (40:15)]…
This one was made great by virtue of a dream, and this one was made great by virtue of a dream. (Breishit Rabbah 84:6)
These parallels are indeed striking, but when we look a little closer, we see that significant differences exist within them.
Let’s start with the first comparison: Both Yaakov and Yosef were born without a foreskin. This, of course, is not in the Biblical verses, but the Midrash understands the verse stating that Yaakov was an ish tam, a perfect man, as indicating that he was physically perfect – born with no foreskin. It is also worth noting that Yaakov is the only one of the avot that we are not told that he underwent circumcision, perhaps an indicator that he was born without a foreskin. And Yosef is assumed to have been born likewise.
What does being born circumcised signify? It could indicate someone on a particularly high spiritual level, but should we then infer that Avraham, Yitzchak, Moshe, and all others who required circumcision were on a lower spiritual plane than Yaakov or Yosef? Rather, it is not a question of what level one is at but how one has achieved that level. In one’s religious striving, does one engage evil, opposing forces and eventually gain mastery over them, or does one avoid the engagement altogether? In the Midrashic mindset, to be born circumcised is to live a life (or at least to start a life) sheltered from the forces of evil in a protected bubble of purity.
This was certainly the case for Yosef. He lived in his own pure world, unable to tolerate the bad deeds of his brothers but oblivious to what his reporting was doing to breed their enmity against him. He was enraptured by his dreams, by these messages from God, but deaf to his brothers’ reactions to his free sharing of these visions. He innocently went to visit his brothers when they were with the sheep, with no clue as to the danger he was putting himself in. This lack of relating to the real world explains how he became a person constantly acted upon – sent to his brothers, stripped, cast in the pit, sold to Egypt, seduced, accused, and cast into prison – a passive person showing almost no initiative of his own. He lived in a world that God controlled, and thus it was meaningless for him to try to direct the events of his life. He certainly had personal fortitude – he had the strength to resist the temptation of Potiphar’s wife – but he lacked the initiative to engage the real world unless forced to do so.
Here is where Yaakov is different. It is true that he was removed from the world in the sense that he preferred to avoid conflict. However, he was not oblivious to what was going on in the world, and he was certainly interested in worldly concerns. He very much wanted Esav’s right of the first born; he wanted the blessing; he wanted to succeed with Lavan’s sheep. But he was not prepared to fight or to argue with Esav or Lavan outright to achieve his goals. Rather, he chose to work around them to get to where he was going.
This isn’t non-engagement; it is non-direct engagement. Sometimes this way leads to deceit. Sometimes it also leads to sacrificing one’s financial interests. Consider the other point of comparison in the Midrash: Yosef is stolen twice, and Yaakov is stolen from twice. Yosef himself was taken and unjustly acted upon, first by his brothers and then by Potiphar. Yaakov, in contrast, was not himself stolen. It was Lavan’s sheep that were stolen, and Yaakov chose to pay Lavan for them regardless of whether the loss was his fault or not. He would rather pay Lavan than fight with him about who was right.
This difference plays out in the other parallels as well. Yosef’s brothers hated him because of the ways he acted as a result of being oblivious to what was going on in the world. Yaakov’s brother hated him because of actions that came from being very aware of the ways of the world, scheming to get what he wanted while keeping his hands clean. Yosef became great due to a dream that he did nothing to realize, that he allowed God to bring about in its due time. Yaakov became great due to a dream, but he acted to ensure its fulfillment by making a deal with God and then reminding God of it when he needed to see it realized.
Yosef’s path is undoubtedly the more pure one. But it is not possible for most of us to remove ourselves from this world. Nor is it necessarily wise. Yosef was blessed that God protected him from his brother’s revenge and from the dungeon of Potiphar. It would be foolish for us to imagine that we could act with such obliviousness to real world consequences with similar impunity. So while Yosef might represent a partial tikkun to Yaakov’s approach, it remains only partial. The true tikkun is to find a way to engage the world in a straightforward and direct manner.
Yaakov himself made this shift when he fought the mysterious man without running away or looking for some less direct way to fight. The man smote him on the curve of his thigh, at the sciatic nerve, exactly in the location of the genitals. The wounding of this area was a symbolic circumcision. In confronting his adversary, Yaakov was transforming from a person born without a foreskin to becoming a mahul – a person who could deal with challenges directly and have the strength to overcome them.
In Yaakov and Yosef, the Torah presents us with two models of a personality that desires to remain tamim – disengaged, or engaged but avoiding conflict. The ideal lies elsewhere. And it is thus that we are presented with two other personalities, two brothers who do step up to the plate when problems arise: Reuven and Yehudah.
Both Reuven and Yehudah acted to save Yosef when the brothers were prepared to kill him. Reuven confronted them directly, convincing them to cast Yosef in the pit. He reasoned that the best he could do was persuade the brothers to let Yosef die indirectly, and then to find some way to retrieve Yosef from the pit. This might have been the perfect plan. It required some lack of honesty, but really, how honest must one be when dealing with potential murders? At least he was willing to address them head on. His problem, however, was lack of follow-through. Reuven is more than ready to rush in to save the day, but he is impetuous: “Turbulent as water, you will not excel” (49:4). He needs to slow down, to plan the next steps, and to see the plan through to the end. This trait continues to be a problem when it comes time to convince Yaakov to send Binyamin down to Egypt, as we will see in the next parasha.
Yehudah is the true tikkun of Yaakov. Yehudah confronts the problem and sees it through to the end, at least to the greatest degree possible. He convinced the brothers not to let Yosef die but to sell him. He can’t control the situation beyond that, but at least he is able to ensure that Yosef’s life is saved. Perhaps he could have achieved more; perhaps more courage was needed. That will emerge in the following story with Tamar, where he is also prepared to step up and do the right thing even if it requires great courage in admitting past wrongs. But even now, his approach is the correct one – confront the problem head on, have a plan, see it through. It is this trait that will ensure that the brothers can return to Egypt with Binyamin, and it is this that, coupled with tremendous courage, will ensure Binyamin’s release.
There are many ways to deal with our challenges. The goal is not to avoid confronting them as part of a misguided attempt to remain pure. True, Yosef is only a partial tikkun of Yaakov. The true model for us must be the one that began with Yaakov’s own struggle with the mysterious man and which was fully realized in the person of Yehudah. It is the model of engagement and of courage. It is the model of a leader.